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Integrated, compatible test equipment preferred for LTE

-January 23, 2013

Consumers’ desire to do everything on the go continues to increase mobile data traffic, which puts tremendous strain on wireless service providers (SPs) networks. Understanding the impact of mobility needs due to the proliferation of broadband data, ubiquitous service delivery needs (any device, anywhere, anytime), and the investment in new high-capacity radio frequency (RF) access technology, such as long-term evolution (LTE) and LTE advanced (LTE-A), continue creating demand for customer-experience monitoring solutions. As a result, the demand for effective test and monitoring tools is on the rise.

Last year (2012) was an important year for LTE deployments. The technology became the wireless technology of choice for global wireless operators. Currently, there are more than 140 commercial LTE networks launched in more than 65 countries globally. In addition, more than 95 LTE networks were launched in 2012 alone.

From a test and measurement perspective, the emergence of this highly technical and complex technology creates a large number of opportunities for equipment vendors. The global LTE test equipment market registered $945.8 million in revenue in 2012, which is expected to jump to more than $2.8 billion in 2018 with CAGR of 20.7 percent from 2011 to 2018.

Chart 1.1 represents the revenue forecast of the global LTE test equipment market for 2012 and 2018.



Even though LTE became the mainstream technology, because of its complexity, test equipment vendors and service providers are faced with a number of challenges associated with this technology. MIMO, interoperability and customer profitability are just some of them.
 
Complex Nature of MIMO
The multiplication of antennas is one of the key challenges engineers face while deploying LTE. This challenge will become more critical with the introduction of LTE-Advanced. 2x2 MIMO - wherein base stations’ transmitters and receivers have 2 antennas on each side - have been deployed with LTE. While Release 8 is expected to expedite the industry's move to 4x4 MIMO, Release 10 came out in the first quarter of 2011 (LTE-Advanced), and it will introduce 8x8 MIMO, where 8 antennas will be required for every transmission. This will present significant challenges for SPs and network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) because implementing 8X8 MIMO will require significant design changes due to interference and the ability to divide the signal. For MIMO to operate properly, signals will have to reach the headset via different channels to pull data and provide users with the high data throughput they expect. If the signals are too close (physically), it becomes difficult to de-correlate them. The challenge for mobile device manufacturers is to design multiband MIMO antennas with an acceptable de-correlation method within the limited space of the mobile phone.

Interoperability with Multiple Standards
Although LTE is backward-compatible with 3G and LTE upgrades from 3G networks, a number of complex technical issues need to be addressed. Multiple standards are likely to operate in parallel with LTE; thus, interconnectivity with legacy networks becomes a challenge. As LTE is deployed in large cities, small cities will continue to operate on HSPA+, towns will employ UMTS, and rural areas, unfortunately, will continue operating on GSM, all on the same network. This presents a key challenge for wireless test equipment vendors who must ensure that the LTE devices work seamlessly with legacy networks, while also guaranteeing conformance with the latest LTE standards.

Challenges Associated with New Technology
New technology always brings with it a number of challenges. As new features are added to equipment, SPs and NEMs need to understand that they have to implement the same correctly. One of the challenges with new technology implementation is that different companies interpret implementation of standards differently. Test equipment vendors have to talk to customers and find out if their interpretation and implementation of standards is different, which can be challenging.

Additionally, test equipment vendors have to rapidly implement the latest technologies into their products and ensure conformance of standards across the entire wireless ecosystem, which includes chipset designers, sub-system designers, systems integrators, software developers, and NEMs, among others. In addition, the deployment of LTE/mobile backhaul network demands a cost-effective carrier-grade technology, such as carrier Ethernet (which requires that test vendors introduce a range of new functionalities in their test equipment to include OAM/MPLS-TP and synchronous Ethernet/IEEE 1588).

Customer Profitability
Customer profitability is key to the growth of the LTE test equipment market. If SPs or NEMs do not generate revenue, they will most likely not invest in new test equipment. In 2008 and 2009, a large number of device manufacturers were struggling to generate revenue. However, the telecommunications industry successfully recovered from the global recession, and most of the key device manufacturers are witnessing profit. The profitability of SPs and NEMs has a direct impact on the revenue of the test equipment market.

VoLTE, QoE, Scalability and Smart Devices are driving the Need for LTE Test Equipment Market
LTE technology brings about a major industry shift to a packet-based data network. Because of that, SPs will deliver voice over a packet-based network also known as voice over LTE (VoLTE).
Typically, UMTS and HSPA solutions intrinsically support voice calls in their core and radio network.

However, in the case of LTE, voice calling depends on the emerging IP multimedia system (IMS) solutions, and the progress regarding IMS to supplement LTE with voice capacity is slow. The lack of standards for IMS and, incidentally, mobile voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), has driven service providers to identify the appropriate voice calling techniques to embed into their LTE networks.
The telecommunications industry is currently working on refining VoLTE technology throughout the entire LTE ecosystem beginning from the chipsets all the way through network. Testing during the research and development phase of VoLTE becomes absolutely critical for successful technology deployment and ensuring positive quality of user experience (QoE).

QoE is expected to continue driving the need for wireless test equipment during the forecast period, mainly because LTE networks are prone to quality impairments due to their complexity. The demand for LTE test equipment is expected to increase exponentially with LTE deployments.

The scale of traffic LTE networks are designed to handle is significant. Convergence is gaining importance as an increasing number of functions are being merged into a single large router or other network elements. A large number of vendors claim that their equipment is able to handle millions of users; however, the reality might be different. The key task for vendors is to verify equipment performance under real network conditions in the presence of different kinds of network traffic. The crucial issue is real data performance, performance availability, scalability and network availability.

Smartphones and tablets are forming the next generation of wireless devices, and are gaining significant momentum. Smartphones, which were once the domain of the enterprise space, have now penetrated the consumer spaces quite strongly, displacing the feature phones market. As a result, enterprises have started to accept personal liable devices for their employees, clearly demonstrating a paradigm shift in their wireless strategies. This, however, has put pressure on manufacturers to innovate with the form factors and the inherent features. These elements have also gained prominence in the decision-making process of consumers.

Conclusion
LTE offers tremendous opportunities for test equipment vendors. As LTE is still a rather new technology, Frost & Sullivan’s research indicates that SPs prefer to purchase backward- and forward-compatible testing tools for future use, LTE trials or deployments. In addition, the trend toward integrated test equipment (one-box testers, for instance) is expected to continue with the higher price-to-performance ratio.

Olga Yashkova-Shapiro is  Program Manager, Communications Test & Measurement Practice, Frost & Sullivan

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